Friday, April 9, 2010

Making Use of Player Imagination

I'd like to discuss how games and film are able to take advantage of player imagination to create a better experience for players--And might even save development costs doing so.

As a Neverwinter Nights DM, I sometimes have to do things that the game doesn't support. A common obstacle is allowing player characters to travel to or through locations that I haven't actually built into my module. Also, letting them climb over things, or swim through pools of water.

This was kind of tricky at first, but I solved this issue by making myself into a narrator. I treat it as a tabletop game, and pretend I'm just sitting there with them, telling them what happened.

"You journey through a wind-blasted desert. A sandstorm blinds your group, but in keeping your bearings, you press onward until you take refuge under a cliff face. You shortly discover a cavern entrance, and seek shelter inside." At this point, I teleport the players to any cave in my module I might have available, and then run ahead to set up a few monster encounters.

People fill in a lot of stuff, and it's possible that this description is more memorable than the rest of the game session.

I'd like to point out another example from filmography. Do you remember the original Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back? Not the Special Edition, the ORIGINAL. In the original release, you hardly got a glimpse of the monster. This was probably MOSTLY due to horrible special effects, but maybe not. Tell me which image is scarier.

Watching the original version, you merely get glimpses of the monster. You hear his grunts. The music heightens. Your brain imagines something is coming, and your brain foresees the most horrifying thing possible.

The special edition shows you the monster from the start, eating up Luke's poor Taun Taun. The scene doesn't really make you scared. Instead, it evokes fascination. "Oh, look at that cool-looking monster. I always wondered what he looked like."

Video games can do this too. Think about the earliest games you played as a kid. The graphics were bits and blocks next to the almost-photo-real renders we see now. But how did the developers get around this? They always included box art and a little booklet with fun pictures in it. Suddenly, when you played Zelda, that little green man looked so much cooler in your head than he did on screen. And you believed it. (Incidentally, Nintendo really should put some of that art into its Virtual Console interface somewhere).

But what about now? The best developers should still be aware of this and tell their stories as such. Those that do will make more powerful experiences for the players, and may even save development costs.

I'm sure many games pull this off well, even now. If you know of any other good examples, leave a comment!


Che said...

I've found the same to be true. A good bit of writing that inspires the player's imagination is unmatched by anything that could be explicitly shown. A game I really noticed this in is Planescape: Torment.

The reason most companies will never go for this, though, is that they see it as just being too risky. It's too easy for a competitor to say "Hah! Your graphics are poor, your game is trash! Buy our game!" and as soon as someone says "But it lets you use your imagination" most people will roll their eyes.

It's a very similar reaction to what you can see going on with the nuclear issue right now. People don't want to hear about "A world without nuclear weapons", they roll their eyes at that.

Thallian said...

I still plan to buy or play that game somehow, though it's become quite rare...

Tesh said...

This works for mechanics, too. Just look at how many players convince themselves that a game is more interesting than it otherwise would be when their imagination gets involved. *coughWoWcough*


Yes, invoking the player's emotion and imagination is far more effective than explicitly trying to show everything and provide interpretation. Imagination is unbounded, art and design assets are finite. Let the player do some of the heavy lifting of actually making the game (or book or play, whatever) come alive.

That's part of what I was getting at when writing about Role Playing in MMOs. Devs can and should facilitate that, not make it harder.